June 26, 2011

OTHERWORLDLY:

The 14 Most Dominant Performances (Joe Posnanski, 6/26/11, Sports Illustrated)

So, this is an attempt to come up with my 14 most dominant performances in sports history. The idea — thought up by my friend Tommy Tomlinson* — began with the simple question: Was Tiger Woods’ amazing performance at Pebble Beach in 2000 more impressive than Rory McIlroy’s amazing performance at the U.S. Open this year? This led to the question: What are the most dominating performances ever?

There were a couple of issues with putting together the list. First: What does dominant mean? I mean, if it’s simply the best performances ever, then it can get pretty boring. Most strikeouts. Lowest score. Most yards. Etc. These are easy enough to just look up in the record books.

So I think we want to go with something entirely subjective. This is all art, no science. Most of my lists have some basis, some anchor in reality. Not this one. It’s all about how dominance feels to me. Mike Tyson’s 1988 knockout of Michael Spinks in 90 seconds, for instance, was impossibly dominant. Spinks looked so scared that if offered the option to lay down in the middle of the ring before the fight even started, I’m sure he would have taken it. But it’s not on my list. Why? It’s hard to put into words, but it seems to me that it’s because Spinks was simply not a worthy opponent. We have to try to find the difference between dominance and mismatches, and it’s not an easy line to see. I don’t want this list to be Alabama beating the San Francisco School of Mimes 98-0.

Second, we needed some guidelines. So here’s what we decided: We would keep this to individuals. At first, I wanted to include teams so I could put the Bears’ Super Bowl victory on the list (though the Patriots that year might have been the Michael Spinks of football), or Nebraska’s win over Florida in the ’96 Fiesta Bowl. That can be another list. And I wanted this to be about singular performances. Edwin Moses dominated hurdles for years, but that’s not a single performance. Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988, and dominated in an overpowering way. Barry Bonds, no matter the reasons, was the most dominant athlete I’ve ever seen from 2000 to 2004 — so bleepin’ dominant that teams simply gave up and walked him 120 times in a single season. But again, Moses, Graf, Bonds, that kind of dominance, I think, is also a different list. The idea is who can dominate one game, one tournament, one match.

For now, it’s this: My impression of the 14 most dominant individual performances in sports history. [...]

No. 8: Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game

He was 20 years old when he threw what I still believe is the most dominant nine-inning game in the history of baseball. Obviously, people will disagree with this — Wood did not throw a perfect game, which probably seems like a prerequisite for the most dominant game ever. But I want to make the case for Wood.

The year: 1998. It was a May day game at Wrigley Field. There were only 15,758 in the stands, though I suspect there are more who claim to have been there. The Bulls were playing Charlotte in the playoffs that night, so that was the focus of the city. Meanwhile, the Cubs were playing the Astros, who would go on to win 102 games and the National League Central. The Astros had two future Hall of Famers — Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio – in the lineup, and they were in their prime. It should be noted that the Astros also had Jack Howell hitting cleanup for reasons that are not entirely clear.*

Wood had a shaky warm-up session in the bullpen. He said he felt terrible. But he also felt GLAD that he felt terrible — “If I’m good in the pen,” he told reporters later, “I’m shaky out there.” When he came out, he wasn’t sharp. But he was throwing SO hard that it didn’t matter. The gun clocked him at 100 mph. Astros manager Larry Dierker, trying to come up with a comparison that made sense, compared his fastball to Nolan Ryan’s (“By the time the ball left his hand, it was in the mitt,” he said). In the first inning, he struck out Biggio swinging, struck out Derek Bell swinging and then struck out Jeff Bagwell looking.

“You can’t get too much better than that,” Bagwell said afterward.

Dave Clark put the first ball in play with two outs in the second inning — a routine fly ball to center. And in the top of the third Houston’s Ricky Gutierrez hit a ground ball just past the glove of Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie. After the game, Orie would wonder if he could have made the play. He was a little bit fooled by the ball. He thinks he might even have touched it with his glove. That was the only hit that Wood would allow. Shane Reynolds bunted him over. Biggio did manage to ground out weakly to end the third inning.

In the fourth, Derek Bell blooped a fly ball to right.

In the sixth, Brad Ausmus grounded out to second.

In the ninth, Craig Biggio grounded out to short.

I bring those up because those are the only balls that anyone hit in fair territory for the rest of the game. The final total of outs:

12 strikeouts swinging
8 strikeouts looking
3 infield groundouts
2 routine fly balls to the outfield
1 sacrifice bunt
1 foul pop-up

Wood did hit Biggio with a pitch, which was more or less unavoidable in those days. Biggio was plunked 106 times from 1995 through ’98. But Wood didn’t walk anybody. He struck out Bagwell three times, struck out Bell three times, struck out Moises Alou three times. He threw 122 pitches, 84 of them for strikes. And he was 20 years old.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cubs announcer Ron Santo would tell anyone who would listen. The Ryan comparisons were everywhere. Billy Williams compared Wood to Koufax. Jim Riggleman called it the best game he’d ever seen pitched, and Mark Grace said this: “You might never see another game like this the rest of your life.” But as incredible as the game seemed at the moment — and I was lucky enough that I happened to watch it from beginning to end on television — it seems even more remarkable now. There are limits to how dominant a pitcher can be on any given day. He relies on his fielders. His performance is affected by the umpire.

But that day in Chicago, Wood pushed the boundaries. He had an inning when he struck out the side looking. He had an inning when he struck out the side swinging. The Astros — and it’s significant that this happened against a really good team — were so overwhelmed that they could not even put the ball in play. Roger Clemens struck out 20 in a game twice. Koufax struck out 14 in his perfect game, Randy Johnson struck out 13 in his. Nolan Ryan struck out 16 in one of his seven no-hitters. And then, of course, there was Harvey Haddix’s 12 perfect innings, Carl Hubbell’s 18 innings of shutout ball, some of Pedro Martinez’s best work. And, more than anything, there was Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series.

But I will still say: No pitcher has ever been as dominant as Kerry Wood was one afternoon in Chicago. [...]

No. 1: Secretariat at the Belmont

One thing that’s easy to forget: Only five horses ran in the Belmont Stakes in 1973. Secretariat had been so amazing that few wanted to even enter their horse in the race. The Triple Crown was considered a certainty — Secretariat went off as a 1-10 favorite, which is absurd.

Still, the people who were there will tell you … they’ve never seen anything like it. What is dominance? All 14 choices on this list could have been different — it could have Larsen’s perfect game, Doug Williams’ Super Bowl, Nadal over Federer at the French, Jack Nicklaus at Augusta in 1972, Michael Jordan’s shrug game, Steffi Graf at the 1989 Australian Open, Derrick Thomas’ seven-sack game, on and on and on — and it would have been just as viable, maybe more so. Dominance is not so easily defined. It is how something strikes you.

And Secretariat winning at the Belmont, it seems to me, is the perfect visual representation of dominance. It wasn’t just that Secretariat won the race by 31 lengths. It wasn’t just that he refused to slow down, moving — in Chic Anderson’s legendary phrase — like a “tremendous machine.” What is dominance? Maybe it is Secretariat, at the height of his powers, pulling away from the pack and then, because he could, pulling away even more and then, for the thrill of the moment, pulling away still.


Those should certainly be #4 and #1, but #2 is actually Michael Johnson in the 200 yard dash at the 1996 Olympics:

and #3 is Pedro Martinez's 17 strikeout, one-hitter against the Yankee team that dominated the late '90s, at the Stadium, on September 11, 1999.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 26, 2011 9:10 AM
  
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